The Sound of Silence

Ever since I first started going to loud dance parties in college I’ve wished for an alternative. Sure, I love to dance, but I also like to be able to hear, and talk. At Cambridge, Fitzwilliam College set a new personal record for me. The music, played over enormous speakers in the same room where they held the genteel god-save-the-queen Formal Hall, was so loud that I could feel the infrasonic resonances of my chest cavity.

That’s about the time that I started dreaming of wireless headphone dance parties. If you gave everyone wireless headphones, playing the same music at the same time, everyone could dance together, listen to music at exactly the volume they personally preferred, and take off the headphones to have an intelligible conversation. You could even imagine running multiple audio tracks in parallel, synchronized but in different styles, so each person could choose a channel to their personal taste.

Algorithmically that would be hard, but never mind.

I heard rumors that such things had been tried … and then this fall I ran across a listing for a Silent Disco night run by Quiet Clubbing NYC. Turns out, it’s a real thing. On Saturday night, I finally got to try it myself, at a free outdoor event in Bryant Park.

The party had already started when we arrived. It was surreal. There was a mob of people dancing enthusiastically to no discernible rhythm, sort of singing bits of recognizable songs but no song in particular, wearing headphones that glowed in bright LED red, green, and blue.

We walked to the end of the very long line of people waiting for headphones. A staffer told us there were 300 people in line; I estimate 500 total.

When we got to the front of the line and put down our deposit, the staff explained how to use the headphones: volume knob on the right, power and channel selector on the left.

There are three channels, and three DJs broadcasting. The channel selector switch picks which one you hear … and also changes the color of your headphones to match. At any given time, if you get bored with your current station, you can switch and see if you like the others better … but you can’t keep it a secret. Conversely, you can look at your friends, and at strangers, to see what color is popular right now.

The effect is fascinating. Sometimes the crowd seems to flip all at once to a different color that’s playing a particularly beloved song. Dancing in a group, you can keep up with your friends, or try to lead everyone onto a new, better track. You have to move fast though … the DJs rarely play a song from start to finish.

The only thing missing from my long-ago dream was synchronization. Sure enough, without synchronization, dancing any closer than arms length while listening to different channels is a recipe for disaster. I saw it with my own eyes.

Better to suffer in silence*.

* I did not come up with this myself.

I hate you Time Warner

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Star Wars

The next day after Fiddler, my parents and I trudged out into the snowstorm and tromped around midtown, eventually landing at the doomed, storied (but not really lavish) Ziegfeld Theater, which was showing the new Star Wars movie.

Much has been said about the most profitable movie of all time, so I don’t feel the need to write a proper review. I do feel compelled to comment on the use of Nazi imagery.

In the original Star Wars, the Empire were clearly referenced to the Nazis. They wore Nazi-ish uniforms, they had a total military dictatorship, and their soldiers were even called “stormtroopers”. Now, twice as distant from World War II as the original (!), J.J. Abrams seems to have decided that the audience may have become less attuned to Nazi imagery … and doubled down, to make sure no one is confused.

The new Bad Guys (the First Order) are even more Nazi than Lucas’s Empire. Their uniforms are more obviously Nazi, and the stormtroopers are now helpfully arranged in exactly the formations from Triumph of the Will, only grander. There’s even an Evil commander who does a hysterical Hitler impression while giving a speech in front of a gigantic black, white, and red banner.

In retrospect, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings share a curious commonality: their Bad Guys are simply pure Evil. In action movies the Bad Guy is usually just misguided, sometimes greedy, often wronged and seeking vengeance. There is some intelligible psychology in play. In Star Wars (and maybe LotR), Evil is literally part of the fabric of the universe. It requires no explanation. (This is unlike, say, Star Trek, where there are uneasy detentes, border disputes and culture clashes, but rarely anyone whose only apparent goal is to cause harm.)

If the Bad Guys weren’t coded evil so powerfully — if their color schemes and tones of voice were pretty much like everyone else — I don’t think the movie would work. Viewers would find their attitude unrealistic, or at least unexplained. Instead, it’s very clear. Why are they so committed to being evil?

Because they’re Nazis. Space Nazis.


The first night of the snowstorm, my parents and I got Literally Last Minute rush tickets to Fiddler on the Roof, on Broadway. We sat up in the mezzanine, with a God’s-eye view of the scene, so every time Tevye calls out to God, he seemed to be looking us right in the eyes.

This production of Fiddler is particularly acclaimed for its dancing. There’s a sense in which that’s inevitable. A new production of a famous musical can’t easily change the words, nor the tunes. You can do something to the set design, or costumes, but Fiddler‘s setting and characters are so unambiguous and grounded that it’s hard to imagine a tremendously innovative staging.

What you can do is to add repeats to all the songs, and fill the time with new dancing, so that’s what they did. The dancing is energetic, creative, historical, modern, precise, athletic … good.

I didn’t come for the dancing, and I’m glad that overall, it’s exactly the same play as it ever was. I came because when my mother was young, her father took her to see Fiddler on Broadway.


Ice Giant

Two astronomers announced today their prediction that a large ice planet is lurking in the far outer solar system, based on an odd coincidence in the orbits of the tiny planets observed so far. That would be pretty mind-boggling, the first major planet discovered in our solar system since 1846. It’ll also probably be years before we find out if the prediction is correct, because to have remained unseen thus far the planet must be very far away at the moment.

Anyway, I totally called it.

The Gardner

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is unassuming from the outside. The tan stucco walls, with few windows, are lower than every surrounding building, only 4 stories high, and there is little in the way of ornamentation. Walking into the building, through a glass tube that puts one in mind of science fiction movie, is therefore an especially memorable experience. The interior space is a sudden transition: darkness, and then a verdant ornamental garden studded with marble antiquities. I was stunned.

You can’t go into the garden, sadly, but you can sit one of the benches around the edge and read about the flowers (which don’t grow there anymore since they installed UV-filtering glass to protect the paintings nearby).

The rest of the house is Gardner’s collection. To Bostonians the Gardner museum is famous for its rule, set in Gardner’s will, that nothing can be moved or altered. I knew that. What I didn’t know is that if you were the curator of the museum you would really desperately want to move almost everything. The house is total chaos, jam-packed with artwork, paintings stacked three high on the walls so you have to crane your neck. The tapestry room has a special apology for Gardner’s “eccentric” decision to present two series of enormous tapestries in a completely random interleaved order.

The house is also full of beat-up antique furniture, taking up valuable floorspace. I wonder if the curators are just letting it decay until it falls apart, so they can be rid of it.

I can forgive the museum its faults that are clearly due to their odd legal restrictions. Less forgiveable is the museum’s lighting, which is bizarrely dim. If they’re trying to capture the feeling of turn-of-the-century indoor lighting technology … it’s working, but then they should open some of the shades.

In short, it’s a terrible museum … and yet it’s utterly compelling. Partly that’s just due to the wacky personality that shows through in a place where hallways are filled to bursting with a mixture of half a dozen 16th century choir pews and display cases full of letters from notable figures in US history. Mostly, though, it’s due to the not insignificant number of truly famous works hanging on the walls — here a Velazquez here, there a Vermeer.

I think I’d forgive it all if they would only let you sit down in the garden, among the fountains and sculptures.



The Planet Fitness in question is 13 blocks north.

NYC Fitness was a low-overhead operation, with beat-up equipment and facilities, and infrequent improvements. It was also usually packed with suspiciously muscular weightlifters. (They still had a poster up of Lance Armstrong!)

I see two possibilities. The first is that NYC Fitness succumbed to the commercial gym subscription paradox: if your members are the most loyal and come to your gym frequently, you’ll be the least profitable gym because you’ll be able to serve the fewest subscribers for the same amount of equipment.

The second is that the more dubious aspects of their clientele made them especially unattractive to potential buyers.

Who made you king of anything

I’m not always great at explaining why I feel so much antipathy towards traditional media, so I’m very grateful when they provide the explanation for me.

Mural/poster at NBC headquarters
Mural/poster at NBC headquarters
"Shaping American culture since 1926"
Slogan in the lower right corner

This, of course, was on the ground floor of the Comcast building, as Comcast (the cable company) owns NBC. This is not the role I want for Comcast in our society.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

It turns out that a day with stops in Inwood, at the north tip of Manhattan, and Princeton NJ, has the perfect amount of train time to read Philip K. Dick’s short novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It traffics in Dick’s classic themes: fragility of the self, addiction, psychedelia, law enforcement, corruption, justice. It also feels to me a lot like Infinite Jest, but about a tenth the weight.

Philip K. Dick is usually described as a writer of science fiction, but in this work the future 1988 (complete with flying cars) is a gossamer veil over a story about America in 1974. (Flying cars? In 14 years? I think it’s meant to be implausible, to poke a hole through the very first page.)

Science fiction is traditionally associated with “world building”, the art of constructing an alternate reality so strikingly self-consistent that its rules seem no more arbitrary than our own. Tears inverts this, writing in sci-fi style about a moment at which all the rules begin to break, effect and cause are torn apart. Neither the characters nor the reader expect anything to be explained, and for the most part it is not. Narrative logic is a tenuous thread upon which hang inscrutable monologues delivered by madmen.

And women. The protagonist perspective is pointedly male, but the story is in the hands of five powerful women, mostly all insane.

I don’t think it’ll make a good movie. I hear there was a play, though. That might work, except for the flying cars.

Like information, but less informative